Viewpoint: How to Be an Ally Without Making It About You

By Julie Kratz July 10, 2023

Many of us know that an ally is someone who is helpful to people different from themselves. But not many people realize that there are different types of allyship.

Active allyship drives systemic change through individual actions. In the workplace, it means getting involved in employee resource groups, as well as mentoring and sponsoring workers of different races, ethnicities, genders, abilities and more. Leaders who are active allies elevate and amplify the voices of others.

Conversely, performative allyship is about the ally's ego. Someone who exhibits this type of allyship proclaims they are an ally without actually doing the work. These individuals focus on how being an ally reflects well on them, rather than on how to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) to support others' success.

To act as an ally, we recommended an umbrella approach—choosing to be a mentor, sponsor, challenger or coach. It's more of a "choose-your-own-adventure" way of being an ally. And allyship doesn't stop in the workplace. You can't be a successful ally at work if you're not willing to practice active allyship in your personal spaces—whether that's with your family, community or network.

No One-Size-Fits-All Recipe to Allyship 

People often ask what they should do to become an active ally. Consider these questions as guideposts to help direct your thinking:

  • How much do you mentor folks who are different from you? 
  • How do you advocate for folks who are different from you?
  • How can you provide feedback and stretch assignments to diverse groups of people? 
  • How could you coach, listen and create space for self-discovery for others who are different from yourself?

When you reflect on the ally you want to be, ask yourself:

  • Why does being an ally matter to you? 
  • What type of ally do you aspire to be? 
  • What does inclusivity look like?

Write down everything that comes to mind, and formulate a concise "why" for allyship. We call this your "ally why" statement. In our work with inclusive leadership and allies, this is the first step on the journey. If you don't have a strong conviction for DE&I, then you risk falling into the trap of performative allyship or just showing up when DE&I is popular in the news cycle—and fading away when the news shifts to something else.

The next step is having a plan for allyship. With anything that's important in your life, personally or professionally, you would have goals and a framework for accountability. It's just like making any other life change—whether that's getting healthier, growing into a new role at work or considering a career change. If you don't have a plan, you're not going to get there. 

A solid allyship plan has three key ingredients: 

  • Your "ally why."
  • A definition of what being an ally means to you.
  • Goals and concrete action steps with timelines and resources.

Allies Do Not 'Save the Day'

Getting feedback on your plan is critical to success. A well-intentioned client of ours once left a session early in his journey and made a mistake that many aspiring allies make early on: He took his plan cheerfully to a group of female colleagues and declared, "I'm going to be an ally for you."

As you might imagine, that came across to the group as self-serving saviorism. Allies do not rescue people; they do not save the day. They listen, ask questions and help others while not focusing on how they will profit.

Want others to change? You can only change you. DE&I work can be taxing because it may feel like you are carrying the weight of other people's problems. Creating space to listen when you desperately want your own voice to be heard, looking in the mirror instead of pointing the finger the other way is not easy.

Active allyship is about setting aside differences and looking for commonalities. If you want others to listen, you must listen first. If you want others to be more open-minded, be more open-minded first. If you want others to embrace DE&I, model it positively for them to embrace as well.

Reflect on this: What is your role in creating positive change? What kind of ally do you want to be? Do you want to be a better friend, a more inclusive parent or caregiver, or help your family become more open-minded?

Remember, allyship is a journey, not a destination. There are no shortcuts and no instant wins. At times it can feel like one step forward, then two steps back. Our behaviors are manifestations of our cumulative life experiences. Unlearning, shifting and learning new things takes time. Our brains don't like to change. We're fighting primitive hard wiring. Allies do hard things. They lean into positive change and model it for others.

Julie Kratz is the founder and chief engagement officer of consulting firm Next Pivot Point in Indianapolis.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Discover what’s trending in HR

Search and download FREE white papers from industry experts.

Search and download FREE white papers from industry experts.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.